Nadine Franklin (Hailee Steinfeld) has issues. A 17-year-old high-school junior, she's a social outcast with only one best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and that friendship is jeopardized when Krista hooks up with Nadine's BMOC brother, Darian (Everybody Wants Some!!'s Blake Jenner). She's perpetually clashing with her widowed, high-strung mother (Kyra Sedgwick). She lusts after a mysterious, hot guy named Nick (Alexander Calvert) who doesn't even know she exists. She binge-drinks. She's even telling her disaffected history teacher (Woody Harrelson) that she's contemplating suicide. Yep, she has issues. All of them. All of the issues.
The Edge of Seventeen has its own issues—and it's kind of a shame, because it also has so much going for it. First-time director Kelly Fremon Craig—who also wrote the screenplay—plays with familiar high-school movie relationship dynamics in creative ways, and adds to the welcome 21st-century surge in cinematic coming-of-age stories from a female perspective. But too often it feels like it's trying to be every kind of high-school movie at the same time. It's a comedy that often gets surprisingly serious, and a drama that keeps making tension-breaking jokes at odd moments.
It's generally better at the comedy part, even when that means turning Nadine into that contemporary teen trope, "The Daria": the smart, tart-tongued, dark-humored, usually unpopular girl. Much of the best material involves Steinfeld's friendship with Erwin (Hayden Szeto), whose painfully awkward attempts to make his crush on her clear often blow up in his face. Szeto and Steinfeld have a wonderfully charming offbeat chemistry, and it's undeniably satisfying watching a contemporary multiplex movie allow an Asian-American man to be a romantic lead. Harrelson also does uniquely appealing things with the typically stock character of the "understanding teacher," convincingly combining a fairly half-assed approach to doing his job with the basic human decency to help the obviously troubled student who needs a sympathetic ear.
There's also a distinctive pleasure in watching Steinfeld continue to grow as an actor, when her side gig as a pop star would make it so easy for her to become little more than a personality. It's not as though her potential wasn't clear from the outset, given her Oscar-nominated breakout role in True Grit, but there are moments throughout The Edge of Seventeen where she expands her range to a new corner. She's certainly funnier here than she's had a chance to be in most of her previous roles, biting off Nadine's bitter dialogue with a real flair. And she demonstrates a lovely subtlety during a scene at a house party where Krista begins mingling with some of the more popular girls; there's a flicker of a smile as she feels happy for her best friend's good fortune, before she realizes how alone that leaves her.
While those swings of emotion are the teen world in which The Edge of Seventeen is trying to live, it's hard for a movie to struggle with similar shifts in tone. As goofy and fun as the scenes are when focused on a more satirical vibe, Craig is also attempting to navigate more precarious territory: the tragic death of Nadine's beloved father, and its impact on the whole family; a dream date for Nadine that quickly tips toward a possible sexual assault; a gently heartbreaking bit where Nadine realizes she has nobody to sit with at lunch. All the volatility in Nadine's world makes it hard at times to know how to feel about her: Is she a genuinely messed-up kid, or someone who's dramatizing the common challenges faced by so many teens?
More frustrating still is the way Craig seems to be on the verge of giving the narrative an unexpected focal point in Nadine's contentious relationship with her brother. It takes too long for Darian to become a character outside of Nadine's angry point of view, which is in some ways the point, but also relegates to an afterthought an angle rich with potential: how family ties can make it impossible to lean on your most reliable allies. The attempt to cover too much ground robs The Edge of Seventeen of its chance to cover unique ground. No individual—and no movie—can easily manage all of the issues.